Copyright © 2015 by D'Artagnon
Sammy was a natural at making too much noise when he walked. At least while in his human form. He hadn't managed to learn that cat-footed trick yet, where you test the ground with cautious, small movements of the foot before trusting the ground to your weight. As a tiger, he had it down to instinct. Seems some things don't translate well when going from four feet to two.
Josh and Tom heard it at about the same time, Tom's head swiveling around to follow the approaching sound of footfalls and leaf shuffling so quickly that he actually had his body square to Sammy's direction before he knew what he was doing. Apparently instincts carried over in werewolf genes better than in other types of shape shifters. Josh was startled that Tom was no longer in his embrace, but he recognized the signs of danger, even saw Tom's straight nose wrinkle up slightly and twitch, testing the air.
"Two coming our way," Tom said. "Making lots of noise."
"Let's not have them find us," Josh said, moving up to Tom's back. "I think we both need to talk and not with interlopers about."
Tom looked over his shoulder. He wasn't too sure what Josh had on his mind to talk about, but it felt right. He nodded curtly and then looked back down the slopes leading up to Watching Rocks. The movement noises were coming from below, but they were still hidden from his view by the forest and the sheer size of the Watch itself.
Josh moved up behind the older boy, realizing that even in human form Tommy was a full six inches taller than himself. He concentrated for a moment and felt it kick in, his gift, his joy, his power to fly. He lifted a few inches off the ground, and then hooked his arms under Tom's shoulders, trying to lift the larger boy up with him.
Tom was startled at first and then panicked. Just because his world had suddenly turned upside down he wasn't ready yet to leave gravity behind. He thrashed under Josh's arms and nearly fell.
Josh strained. Tom's weight wasn't nearly as much as the trucker's had been, but still, the trucker had been a dead weight, no motion, just a pull to the ground. With Tommy wildly swinging his arms and legs trying to reorient himself to the ground, maintaining control over his fledgling power was a nightmare. With a sudden and twisting motion, they both arced to the ground, falling in a tangle of limbs.
Sammy's face crested the slight rise that was the last few steps onto the wide main ledge of the Watch. He automatically winced as he saw Josh struggling to get Tommy off himself. Andy shuffled forward beside Sammy, his hands stuffed into his dark slacks in typical New England manner. He rolled his eyes at the mess before him and sighed loudly as the two older boys regained their feet.
That's when Andy found himself nearly drowning in Josh's eyes. He'd seen Josh many times, but the angles were never right, nor the speed of their passing slow enough for Andy to get much detail. But the sudden closeness of Josh, the way that he kept looking at Andy and Sammy with an almost guilty expression, it all took Andy's breath away. Get a little focus here, Andy told himself. There'll be time for that later. He brought his ironclad will down on his body's reaction, practically threatening away his half started erection.
"Uh, it's not what it looks like," Tom said, regaining his feet and trying to regain his dignity.
"Uh, right. We're just really good friends," Josh said, catching on.
"Oh please," Sammy said, sitting on a rock. "Would it hurt you to be gay and get caught kissing?"
"Samuel!" Andy barked, a short clipped sound that startled everyone, including Andy himself, in how angry it sounded.
"Well, they're gonna know. You said we have to trust each other."
"Trust is earned, Sammy, not traded, not bartered." Andy strode forwards, and held out his hand to Tom. "You must be Tom Gabrielli." Tom shook Andy's hand, not sure what else to do. "And you're Joshua Burkette."
"How did you…" Josh managed to say, even as he was shaking Andy's proffered hand.
"Know who you are?" Andy finished. "I know a lot of things about you, Josh the Hawk. How was the air today?"
"I'm Andy Fox. This is Sammy Frost," Andy said, pointing back to the thirteen year old.
"Hiya, how you doin'?" Sammy smiled.
"And, like both of you, both Sam and myself are gay."
Josh and Tom exchanged looks. "But we've never…." Tom began, stuttering.
"Oh, I don't mean to imply that the two of you have been together. I just know that both of you would prefer to be with guys than girls."
"Tell them the other thing," Sammy said, an excited grin on his face.
"You'll have to forgive him. He recently destroyed someone's car today and he's still riding the adrenaline from that."
"He did what?" Tom and Josh seemed to say as one, then exchanged a look of surprise.
"The other thing he means to say is that aside from being homosexuals, all of us have extraordinary talents and abilities, some of which you may only be realizing now." Andy made sure that both boys were watching him and then performed a complete back flip without any sort of arm swinging or preparatory movement at all, and landed back in the same spot he had started in.
"Cool," Joshua said, softly. Tom shifted his weight onto his back foot.
"Uh, okay, that was mad sweet, but what do you mean? I mean, how do you know all this?" Tom asked, somewhat in awe but trying hard not to show it. This lithe boy before him showed the grace and agility of a trained gymnast or circus performer.
"Let's just say, I know a lot. I know that you've been having running dreams and that you sometimes transform into your werewolf body during those dreams. I hope you've mastered how to change."
"Uh…" was all Tom could think to say. This smaller boy seemed so self assured, but he wasn't rubbing Tom's face in it. He was just stating a fact and then watching. Something told Tom that whatever Andy's abilities were, watching was high on the list.
"But you said you also knew we were… that we… well…"
"Yes, I know that you all like boys. We all share that in common." Andy put his hands back deep into his slacks and leaned backwards until his butt rested against a rock. "I hadn't intended to find both of you together. I'm certain that we can all keep your relationship a secret. None of us has anything to gain by exposure at this point."
"Oh, uh, it's not like that," Josh said, quickly.
"No, we just met, sorta," Tom said. A slight smile creased Andy's face upon hearing that, but he refrained from leaping straight up and turning cartwheels on the edge of the upper parapet.
"I just met Andy today, too," Sammy said, poking his way into the somewhat heavy silence that hung in the air. "I can change."
"Change?" Tom said, giving the little boy a serious look. Were they alike? Was there someone else like him he could talk to, even if only a little 9th grader?
"Yeah, I get bigger and stronger and faster and I can like see further and…"
"Farther," Andy corrected.
"You can see farther, Sam. You said further which speaks more to degree than to distance. The right word to use is farther." Andy adjusted his glasses and looked over to the other two. "We can save explanations for later. We have one more person to meet before I can tell you all about a grave threat that may wind up killing all of us if we don't do something about it, quickly. Follow me."
"Oh yeah? I don't think so, Foxy," Josh said, a little bit of anger coming into his voice. Who the fuck was this little shit to think he could just dictate terms? He all of a sudden wanted everyone to do as he said? Fuck that!
"Joshua, if you will just have a little patience…"
"No, he's right. We don't know you from Adam, Four-Eyes! You want us to just follow you around like dogs on a leash? What makes you think either of us will believe anything you say?"
"Oh, I get it now," Sammy said. "This is the part about earning trust!" His eyes were wide with youthful enthusiasm, not a spark of sarcasm, as if he had just realized some great mystery.
"Yes, Sam. Perhaps you'd best shift." Andy didn't like the situation, the older boy and Joshua, with those flashing eyes of his, were getting angry. He hadn't intended on some sort of confrontation. Fighting them was the last thing he intended. Even in self-defense.
"Oh no you don't!" Josh said, shooting up into the sky. Andy pulled his hands out of his pockets. Josh wasn't moving to escape. Quite the contrary. He was moving to build up speed for a hit. Looks like I made a serious error in judgment, Gramps, he thought as he looked around quickly.
A loud growling noise from Tom told Andy all he needed to know as the older boy shifted into his werewolf shape. Sammy had similarly begun his own transformation. All around was chaos as the boys began preparing themselves to fight. His plan had gone all wrong. Instead of bringing them together for mutual protection, he'd started a teenage mutant gay turf war.
Josh moved in first, trusting his power with his very life now. He dove at Andy, ready to pummel the little shit for coming in and first interrupting a tender moment and now bringing in his soft eyes and know it all attitude. He was a threat that Josh couldn't fully understand, but one that had to be met. Secrets had to be kept.
Tom and Sammy finished morphing at the same time. Both stared the other down, surprised by what they saw before themselves. Sammy was more than a little intimidated by the sight of a werewolf looming over him. The giant creature obviously out classed Sammy as far as strength and brute force. He'd have to rely on speed and reflexes when the crazy older teen attacked. Grammy said some kids get mad emotional when they become teens. If this is what puberty does to you, I don't ever wanna grow up, Sammy thought, pacing.
Tom was rather surprised not to be facing a second werewolf. The tiger cub before him was more of a match than little Sammy would have been, but still less than frightening, especially with the loose clothing still draped over his form. Tom decided that while he wasn't about to take any crap from Sammy or Andy, he wasn't going to hurt the little kid either. He didn't want to be a little kid killer as well as what he'd had to do to Dylan. He clutched his fingers in tight, keeping his claws from becoming a factor in the fight.
Andy pulled a sudden reverse leap, landing on top of the stone he had been resting against and then flipped forwards over Josh as the Hawk came down at him, fists flying in for a strike at Andy's jaw. He stepped down and bounced, spring-boarding off Josh's butt and twisting in the air to land up against the steep hillside that formed the back wall of the ledge.
"This isn't what I had in mind," Andy said aloud as Josh turned about, ready to strike again. His speed through the air was incredible and Andy paused a moment to stare with wonder into the eyes of the boy coming at him Those beautiful eyes, so tinged with fear and hate right now.
Andy waited. Eyes locked with Josh's. Josh came in, drawing back his right fist for a hard straight punch. Andy felt his lips twitch as Josh closed in. He had no intention of hurting Josh. But this altercation had to end.
Josh closed and swung hard, his fist coming forward right at Andy's chin. And that's when Andy moved. It was such an unexpected thing. Andy moved into the inside of Josh's punch, wrapped one arm around Josh's arm, locking behind the elbow. Dropping his weight and grabbing a fistful of Josh's open jacket, he flung the flying boy several feet to the left. Josh spun uncontrollably and bounced off the ground, rolling left over right. His butt fetched up against a stony projection and twisted him about. Clutching the rocky outcropping helped keep Josh from tipping over the ledge to the next flat surface ten feet below.
"I don't want to fight you, Joshua," Andy said, carefully regaining feet. "But I will not let you hurt me, either. Can we please just talk?"
"Talk is cheap, pretty boy," a voice said from behind Andy. The Fox's eyes closed and waited. Tom's claw swung through the air where Andy stood, a blow that would have knocked the smaller kid a dozen yards down the slope. But Andy wasn't there. The vertical jump wasn't difficult for him, nor was landing behind the big werewolf boy. Nor was the sudden slicing kick executed to the back of the werewolf's leg, dropping the pile of fur and muscles. The surprise was when the big bruiser was quick enough to turn as falling, land on all fours and in position to have his large, slavering muzzle open wide enough to snap Andy in half from crotch to rib cage. And that Tom was quickly moving in to take that bite.
Sammy landed on Tom's back, his tiger fangs sinking deep into the werewolf's neck fur. The youngster hauled backwards with his legs and back, surging as much as his juvenile tiger form would allow. Tom's jaws snapped just shy of Andy's groin, giving the Fox a chance to reverse somersault back away from the glistening rows of jagged, pearly life takers.
"I got him!" Sammy growled around a mouthful of fur. "I got him!"
"And I got you, stripes!" Josh growled, slamming into Sammy from behind. The older boy wrapped the young tiger in his arms and lifted up. Sammy was so surprised by the hit and grapple that he opened his jaws and released his claws from gripping into Tom's back fur.
Josh rocketed up towards the upper ledge, hauling the tiger with him. With a neat spin, he surged and tossed Sammy towards a thick tree near the Watch's top terrace. Sammy hit hard, almost twisting around to land on his feet until the tree intercepted his middle. He hit with a sickening crunch and went down in a heap, his loose gym pants and hoody bunching around his tiger form like some dropped plushy with a week's worth of dirty laundry dumped on top. Josh kept his eyes glued on the tiger-boy, ready to move if he attacked again.
But Sammy lay still. Unmoving. And even in his suddenly adrenaline fueled rage, Josh realized something was wrong.
Down on the ledge below, Andy circled, trying to keep the rocky escarpment behind him as Tom prowled, his eyes yellowing. The werewolf was much more massive than the Fox. Long, lean and layered in muscles. Broad through both shoulders and hips and his enormous jaws hung open, ready to snap an arm or leg or torso in half. He wasn't just a brute, either, Andy realized. He was quick. Maybe not fast, but certainly quick. Andy would have to be quicker.
"You wont own me!" Tom snarled.
"I don't want to own you," Andy replied, hoping to reason with the big werewolf boy. "I want to help you. To help all of us. Safety in numbers and all that."
"You seek to lead."
"Only if you choose to follow. I wont seek to dominate you."
"Then you can't have me."
"I will only command you if you want me to." Andy came to a stop, his hand resting on a protuberance of rock behind him. With a subtle movement of his elbow, Andy verified that the rock behind him was at the right height for what he had in mind.
"Enough talk. You die now! Just like Dylan last night!"
Andy cocked his head at hearing Tom talk of killing someone. But the momentary consideration lasted only a moment. Tom surged forwards, his arms reaching out to encircle Andy's waist even as his head twisted slightly to help catch Andy's head in a vicious bite.
Except Andy wasn't there, again. He leapt up, landing in a squatting position on the rock behind him, then leaped forwards, tumbling in midair, his feet striking out together to spear into Tom's back, right above his tail. The effect was instant and devastating. Tom rammed into the rock Andy had launched from, chin first. He hit the ground, clearly stunned. The Fox landed, spinning through a backwards leg sweep, stirring up leaves into the air, his hands drifting into a well-practiced defensive position. He was set, calm, ready to defend, and alert.
But Tom seemed less than responsive. The blow to his face clearly had him far from thoughts of continuing violence. Or consciousness, for that matter.
Andy looked around, trying to locate where Joshua and Sammy had gotten off to. A short glance up was all it took to spot Joshua hovering over the space just past the lip of the ledge above. But the body language and slackness of jaw caught Andy's attention. He drifted back away from the ledge, very slowly so, but Andy could tell. Josh's arms weren't held up, defensively. His legs were bent at the knees, as if he were shocked and had twitched in surprise. And his stare was steady, locked.
Andy glanced around quickly, making sure Tom was still figuring out why the stars were out early. He then looked around again, seeking to find where the little Kat was. No sign. Andy let his eyes flitter back to Joshua, briefly taking notice of the way his clothes clung to the boy, before realizing that Joshua's expression hadn't changed the whole time he had been hovering there, drifting back into more open space. Drifting away almost in a state of shock.
He had to be looking at Sammy, Andy realized, and with that expression…
Andy leapt for the upper ledge, his legs catapulting him with apparent ease the twenty feet to the outcropping at the edge. He briefly glanced at Joshua as he came to rest there, a point of stillness in his momentum. Joshua hadn't moved, hadn't noticed Andy's approach. Andy noted Josh's position and quickly rolled forward across the pine straw and leaves strewn across the upper ledge, coming to his feet like a ninja. He scanned the area quickly and realized there was no danger, no motion, no nothing. Nothing but the small crumpled form of Sammy laying at the base of a hundred year old elm tree.
"Sam!" Andy called out, moving forward to kneel by the boy's side. He had reverted to boy form after impacting the tree. A section of the elm's bark had shattered under the impact, and a small bit of it fell as Andy reached out to touch the younger kid. Andy looked back at Joshua, eyes going wild. "What did you do?" Andy shouted.
"Nothing. I just tossed him. I… I… Is he…"
"Breathing," Andy replied, his fingers pressing in gently at Sammy's throat. "And heart still strong."
Josh floated over and landed beside Andy, kneeling down to examine the boy. "I didn't want to hurt him."
"We didn't want to hurt you or Tom either," Andy fired back, angrily. "This didn't have to happen."
"He should be waking up soon. He tried to bite a rock and it bit him first. Never met a werewolf with a glass jaw before."
"You say that like there's more than one," Joshua said as Andy probed Sammy's neck and head for injuries. The Fox briefly glared at Josh, as if silently declaring that there were, indeed, more werewolves about.
"Oohhh!" Sammy said, his hand coming up to his head. He spit several times, wiping the back of his hand across his lips. "Yueck! Dog fur!"
"Easy now, little guy. You all in one piece?" Andy asked, resting his hand on Sammy's narrow shoulder.
"Your hard head hurt this tree," Andy joked. Sammy seemed to realize that Josh was standing right next to Andy, leaning over both of them. The Kat tried to back away, only to have Andy grab both his shoulders and shake his head. "It's okay. Fight's over. Right?" Andy asked, looking up at Josh.
"Yeah. Fight's over," Josh agreed. "You okay, little dude?"
"Ribs are sore. You sure can hit for being a little birdy!" Sammy said, grinning. "Was I at least heavy?"
"We'll you know, cats are supposed to be light on their feet," Josh shrugged. "What the heck are they feeding you?"
Sammy grinned for a moment then, as if suddenly remembering, his eyes opened wide. "Tom?!"
"He's okay," Andy reassured. "Just resting down below."
"No he's not," Sammy said.
"Yes he is. He hit hard enough to be out cold for another twenty minutes."
"Oh, no, little dancer boy. He's awake!" Tom said from behind Andy, his voice sounding dark and angry.
"Whoa!" Josh shouted, turning and holding his hands up towards Tom's face. Even with his arms extended, the Hawk only reached the Wolf's chest.
"Did they hurt you?" Tom said looking down at the sprawled out Sammy and the Fox crouched on one knee, a balled fist ready to strike, held low to the hip, partly hidden from view.
"No. Let's hear them out. Andy could have really hurt you while you were helpless down there. And he could have hurt me when he saw I'd… I'd hurt Sammy. He could have. He didn't." Josh looked at the other two boys behind him, then looked back as Tom began transforming back to human form. "It doesn't hurt us any to hear what they have to say. We've already proved we can fight if we have to. Why not hear them out?" Tom grunted, rubbing his sore jaw, but seemed to agree.
"So, what is this all about?" Joshua asked, as Andy helped Sammy sit up, brush some leaves out of the smaller boy's hoody.
"We all have special gifts," Andy began, becoming comfortable sitting on his knees and heels, oriental style. "Some are more powerful than others. Some more subtle and useful. But the fact is, despite our differences, the four of us, and others in the town, are beyond the ken of nature as most know it."
"Say what?" Tom asked, confused.
"He means we got powers, yo!" Sammy said. "Sorry about biting and clawing your back, dude. Wish I could go werewolfy like that."
"No harm. Feels like it's already healed up."
"Yeah, about that," Josh said, turning to Sam. "As hard as I slammed you against that tree, I expected you'd have like crushed ribs at the least. I thought I'd killed you or something." Josh admitted, his lip twitching in guilt. "Doesn't it hurt?"
"Now that you mention it," Sam said, lifting the hem of his hoody, his eyes searching the side of his trunk. His pale flesh had a blotch of purple bruise with a tinge of yellow around the edges of it. As the boys watched, a slight bump under the flesh moved, popping a rib back into alignment with its brothers. "Holy…" Sam started to say, but fell silent again. As the boys watched, the bruise shrank, shifting through a range of colors, before vanishing into the smooth skin of the younger boy's side.
"That's wicked," Joshua breathed out. "But how?"
"Like I said. We are not like other people."
"But Andy," Sam began rubbing his finger over the spot. "I don't even feel the spot where I hit the tree anymore."
"And I can barely feel where you pushed me head first into that rock," Tom admitted.
"I only guided you there. Was your own strength used against you that got you into conflict with the rock."
"Irregardless," Tom said, about to begin, but Andy cut him off.
"Irregardless is not a word. You mean regardless."
"Whatever! Look, how is all this happening? I mean, last night, another werewolf attacked me."
"Look, we can talk about this along the way. We have to get moving," Andy said, standing. "There is one more of us we need to find, now. Already, the strongest of us has fallen, in these very woods, just last week. And the one we haven't met yet is alone and in terrible danger. He's been discovered by our enemies."
"We have enemies?" Joshua asked.
"Not by our choice, but yes. Let's go, we have a few miles to cover."
"Uh, I need a reason," Joshua said, folding his arms over his chest. Behind him, Tom did the same. Andy looked over to where Sammy was still rubbing the skin where the bruise had been. He'd pulled his sweat pants and underwear over the edge of his hip, looking at the bare flesh there as well. He seemed oblivious that the others could see the top of the crease between his leg and crotch.
The youngest boy looked up, realizing that all other conversation had stopped. He grinned, releasing his sweatpants' waist band, his hands moving into his kangaroo pouch. "What?" he asked. "I was just looking for other cool bruises healing up."
"Healing rapidly is one of our powers. Not as fast as true werewolves can heal, but far far faster than average humans."
"How fast, Andy?" Josh asked, those beautiful eyes locking with Andy's. He felt himself get emotional twinges under the power of the Hawk's eyes, but the Fox concentrated, knowing they must hurry. No time to get lost when we have trouble coming, Andy thought.
"And what do you mean, true werewolves?" Tom asked, suddenly very interested in everything that Andy knew.
"Let's get going. I'll answer as much as I can as we go." Andy offered Sammy a hand up. They boys moved to the down trail along the side of the Watch and began heading down towards the river path.
"So, each of us has abilities. Josh can fly, Tom and Sammy can change shapes. The one we are heading to help has strength and agility beyond his physical appearance, which is already significant."
"You talk like you're in some black and white movie," Tom noticed, mentioning it out loud.
"I was getting to that. You've noticed our extreme healing capabilities. That's one aspect of our regeneration power."
"We all have that?" Joshua interrupted. He thought back to when his flight power first kicked in, the bike accident with the boulder. Had he escaped that totally unscathed, or had he healed so quickly that he didn't even remember being hurt? What happen if he'd been so injured that he could have died? He put these thoughts away for later introspection.
"Yes. Like I was saying," Andy said, slightly annoyed at the interruption. "We regenerate extremely quickly. It has been years since I had a cold, flu or even allergies. I haven't had acne in so long I feel sorry for kids stuck with pimples. You may find that you recover quickly from heavy exertion, will tend to be stronger and more agile, even in your normal forms, for you two," he gave head nods to Sam and Tom.
"I know I have. The thief's highway isn't easy. Hey, I just realized that stuff we did today is like uh, whatchu call it, free running. Parkour! Did we do Parkour?"
"In a way, yes. As a side effect, once your powers kick in and you start using them more and more, your body will continually regenerate itself, keeping your body pure. It also…" and this time, the Fox paused, taking a deep breath. "It slows the aging process. The more you use your powers, the more your body accelerates your regeneration."
"Wait a second. If that means what I think it means," Joshua said, his green eyes focusing on Andy. "How old are you, really?"
"My powers kicked in when I was 14 years old. Just 7 weeks into my 14th year."
"And when was that?" Josh said, feeling like Andy was trying to avoid the question.
"1996," Andy replied, adjusting his glasses. The boys behind him stopped walking. Andy took five steps before stopping himself to turn and look back at the others. "I am not lying about this. I have been 14 years old since midsummer of 1996."
"That makes you…" Sammy started, trying to do the calculations in his head. His tongue poked out the side of his mouth.
"Yes, a lot older than all of you. We still have far to go. You can either challenge me on history or we can get moving and I can answer other questions."
"But, how?" Tom asked, still not moving.
"As I said, the more you use your major ability, the more your body regenerates. I've been using my powers a long time."
"So I wont ever grow up?" Sammy said, looking like someone had completely let the wind out of his sails. "Like I wont ever grow pubes, or have to learn how to shave, or like have my voice change?"
"My powers are different from yours, Sam. You only use your major ability when you change. Mine is constantly on."
"What exactly is your power?" Joshua said. "I mean, you move like the wind. I couldn't land a punch and you flung me around like Frisbee."
"Okay, I'll show you this once. Then can we please get moving?"
"Yeah," Tom said.
"But I wont ever get to grow up?" Sammy reiterated. The other boys looked at him and Sammy leaned against a nearby boulder, tears about to form in his eyes. "I really wanted to grow up," he mumbled. "Grammy is getting so old, and I wanted to show her I could be big and strong. That I'd be okay when she finally, when… That I would be a good man like my father."
Josh moved to Sammy's side and lay a hand on the smaller boy's shoulder. He recognized the look. The sense that everything important to you had shifted. Not a feeling that Josh enjoyed himself, but had felt more times than he cared to remember. He brought Sam to his chest, cradling the younger boy's head to his shoulder as Sammy softly cried.
"You will be a good man, Sam. You will grow. Just not as fast as other boys. You will likely have a long time being a kid, which some people would love to have."
"But Grammy wont get to see me graduate, or go to college or learn to drive. She's already so old and…" Sammy sobbed, leaning into Josh's embrace.
"How is this possible?" Tom asked. Andy had been afraid this would happen. These boys were too smart to simply go where led. They were too canny and wise to not ask questions. Time was running out. Andy had to get them marching again. He had to show them.
"Like I said, the regeneration is based on how often you use your powers. I told a bit of a fib to you earlier Sammy."
"When I told you that we were the same, about liking boys in the same way. When you admitted you were gay."
Josh stiffened at that moment, still his arms around Sam. Nearby, Josh noticed Tom shift uncomfortably. The older boy's right hand shot up to rub the back of his neck, his eyes drifting away from where Josh and Sam stood hugging.
"You lied?" Sam asked, sniffing.
"Not exactly. And it's because of my power that it's not exactly a lie. I've been using my power for most of my life now, which is why I still am physically only 14 years old, despite the many years." Andy inhaled sharply, arms rising out and away. "Here's why."
Andy's eyes closed, and the shift triggered. Andy's body shuddered. Andy groaned, eyes squeezing even tighter, as shifts in muscle and bone began undulating under Andy's clothes. His hips twisted violently and he bent over, hands forming into claws, shaking as they drew near Andy's face. His back suddenly arched outwards, lifting his rib cage up, his hands crossed over his narrow chest. Suddenly, Andy's hair changed, lengthening, lightening in color. The boys watched in complete awe as Andy's body changed, rounded, adjusted.
When the spasms passed, and Andy unbent, standing, they stared in awe. Andy stood before them, uncomfortably. Andy adjusted the clothes to account for her obvious breasts and hips, now compressed in clothes designed more for a skinny boy compared to the young lady on the cusp of womanhood that she was.
"This is what I was when my powers first kicked in," she said. "I was born Andrea Julia Fox. Gramps called me Andie when he trained me. When I showed him my power, how I could become a boy at will, he said I could use such an ability to my advantage. How being two obviously different persons could be a boon to a spy."
An uncomfortable silence, unbroken by even the slight breeze in the forest or the murmur of the river less than a hundred yards away, lingered amongst them. Josh shifted his weight several times, trying to imagine what Andy just went through. Tom, oddly, felt a need to get closer to sniff at the now female Andy, yet he stood his ground, feeling that it would be wholly inappropriate. Sammy simply stared in awe, his jaw working as a question formed in his mind.
"So, when you were putting my underwear on, I was naked in front of a…" and he lowered his voice. "A girl?"
Andy crossed her arms over her breasts and turned slightly away from the others. "I hated being a girl. In 1996, girls weren't supposed to do all the things that Gramps trained me for. They weren't supposed to be good at sports or martial arts, and able to have their own brains and thoughts and be something other than helpless damsels. And I didn't want to be, helpless or a damsel. I didn't want to be a flirty airhead more concerned with Lisa Frank stickers and Mtv and makeup and gossip. Gramps had raised me more like a boy anyways I knew baseball batting averages and football starting line ups while other girls were wondering if Jonathon Taylor Thomas was a good kisser. I was pulling fish out of Plug Pond and climbing trees behind Barnie's when other girls my age were fawning over Barbie dolls."
Andy looked back and met Sam's eyes, then flicked her gaze up to Tom and Josh before returning to Sammy. "I didn't lie to you, Sam. I like boys. The same way you do. The same way all three of you do. I just started out playing for the other team. I prefer to be a boy, and have feelings for boys."
"So, you're kinda like Peter Pan. Always a boy, always young?" Tom asked.
"The side effect," Andy nodded. "Sometimes it works to my advantage. Sometimes it can be a problem."
"How is it a problem?" Josh said, keeping his arms around Sammy's shoulders when the younger boy stepped slightly away. Andy noticed that Sammy kept his own arm partly on Josh's hip, leaning in sideways.
"When you don't age, don't change, people tend to notice. I have to keep out of sight. I can't stay in a home like normal folks. I can't even go to school without having to arrange records. Keeping money, even earning money is difficult. Sometimes I have to steal to eat."
"Like your grandpa?" Sammy asked, sniffing.
"Only when I have to. And never from those in need themselves. Some people over the years have helped me. They have kept my secret, but they can only do so if I stay out of sight. I can't have the luxury of friends or even living in a proper home. I make do when I can, hide and steal when I must." Andy looked back to the boys, her eyes wet with tears. "I hated how people treated me as a girl. How girls in school would talk about how poorly I was dressed. They would say I was too skinny and that because I liked so many things the boys liked that I was a dyke."
"A what?" Sammy asked, his tears drying up but his demeanor becoming suddenly defensive.
"He means a lesbian. Er, she means. I mean, Andy means," Tom explained, stumbling.
"Either way, I was an outcast. When I discovered my power, I changed my name, changed some of my appearance, and re-entered school. But I didn't age. I learned a lot about how to be a boy, how to make my body look and function like a boy's. In every way, my altered form is exactly like yours, in all the ways that make you boys."
"And this is your power, so it keeps you regenerating, keeps you young, right?" Josh asked.
"Then you're stronger as a boy. Tougher, all that."
"Andy," Sammy said, stepping forward. He stopped just a few steps from Andy, looking up and down. "When you touched me, like, when you were a boy and touched me," he asked, haltingly. "Did, uhm, did you like it?"
"As a boy?"
"I had to think about other things while dressing you, tiger-boy. I got excited."
"Like a hard on?"
"Yes," she blushed.
"I had to think about other stuff, too," Sammy admitted. "I liked being naked with you. Well, you know, as boy you."
"I did, too, tiger-boy." Sammy leaned in and hugged around Andy's middle, suddenly. Andy was a bit shocked at the display of affection.
"Ahem!" Tom coughed, stepping up beside Josh. "Okay, I can accept some of this. Perhaps you should change back and we should get going."
"Right. Gimme a sec and I'll be set again," Andy said. Sammy reluctantly let go of Andy and stepped back. Josh's hands fell on Sammy's shoulders, and Tom's hands did the same, falling one on Josh's shoulder and the other dropped on Sammy's hair. They watched in fascination as Andy reversed the process, becoming a boy again. His face twisted with the exertion.
When the transformation was complete, Andy took a few moments to adjust matters in his underwear. Changing back didn't hurt as much, but when the boy bits took form again, they often crammed into his boxer-briefs in uncomfortable ways. Also, the change had shifted the position of the hidden pocket knife he kept concealed, and Andy needed to make sure it was secured.
"Everything good?" Tom asked.
"Normally, if I change back, I do it alone, and without clothing. Or an audience."
"Does it uh, I mean, when you go girl, does it hurt when…"
"Oh lord. The fast answer is, yes. It is made from the same stuff that the girl parts were. It hurts both ways, but is worse going back to Andrea quickly. Stuff inside has to switch back. And yes, it is fully functional, both ways. We can play twenty questions later. We need to get moving. Our unmet friend is in a lot of danger."
"Right," Joshua said, sighing. "So where are we going?"
"We follow the river path, east."
"Then let's get going."
"I got wood watching you change back. Does that make me weird?"
"Dude!" Tom exclaimed, starting off down the path. "You turn into a tiger, can leap thirty feet, and healed a cracked rib in like twenty seconds, and you're wondering if you're weird? Josh defies gravity like it's his bitch, Andy becomes his own twin sister and I become a walking engine of furry death. I think you're missing the big picture."
"Oh, yeah," Sammy said, starting to walk behind Tom. "Guess you're right. So where are we going?"
"Only thing along the path that way is the fishing spot," Josh said, falling into step beside Andy. "Or is that just one step along the way?"
"When we get to the fishing spot, we turn uphill. There's a forested area there that's being cleared. New condo units going in come the spring," Andy said, still adjusting his clothing. "Our unmet friend is there, along with his father."
"And how do you know we're all the same, or like, at least…" Josh struggled. "I think you know what I mean."
Andy chuckled softly. "Near as I can tell there are three incidences that we all have in common."
"Being born in Canterbury?" Sammy said from the front, still kicking leaves up as he walked. It was an interesting dichotomy to Andy, watching the small and boisterous Sam walking beside the tall and reserved Tom.
"Yes, that's the first one. The other two are more obscure, and took me longer to figure out." He let his fingers drift through his brown hair, shivering slightly at the mix of cold and warmth in the fall morning air as the strands slipped between his long, dexterous digits.
"Let me guess," Josh posited, "Parents went to the same high school?"
"That would be a logical progression, but not a logical assumption."
"What did he say?" Sam asked.
"He said close but no cigar," Tom translated.
"Oh," the smaller boy said, nodding in non-understanding.
"Although, in this case that is also correct and an important correlation."
"There are two events that all of your parents share with my grandfather. While he was a spy in the war, he had been captured. And tortured."
"That's awful!" Sammy exclaimed.
"Years later, there was a massive viral outbreak at the high school."
"I remember hearing about that," Tom said. "I was looking through my mom's old year book. There was a whole section in there about the epidemic, the lost ones. I lost an uncle to the disease itself and two cousins to the aftermath. One died while pregnant. No one even knew she had a baby. She'd been raped while being treated for the disease."
"A common and horrendous tale from that time," Andy said sagely. "Both the torture my Gramps went through and the disease the students went through had a common source. A Nazi scientist who somehow managed to avoid capture and set up shop in America after the war."
"There was something about that in the paper," Josh said, trying to remember. "He was caught doing things to kids again, here in Canterbury. Just this summer! He'd changed his name and all. Didn't he die; some kinda crash?"
"On the highway in New Jersey," Andy agreed. "But he applied his techniques to both my Grandfather and to your parents."
"So you think that had something to do with our powers?" Josh asked. He suddenly felt sort of queasy at the prospect that his powers might be the result of some evil "master race" agenda. He loved being able to fly, he loved moving fast, but he'd never considered that the cause of this wondrous ability might be so tainted in evil. He knew that all German people weren't bad, weren't mixed in with the horrible things the Nazi high command had ordered and instigated. But those who were at the top had done bad, bad things, and had planned to keep doing so, if they had won. The chill in the air was only one of the shivers Joshua felt just then.
"It would be less than intelligent to not suspect that there might be some truth to that. It is a very significant event. During that outbreak, every one of your parents were part of the quarantine group. In fact, some of them were friends." Andy adjusted his glasses as he approached the leading pair. Tom and Sammy had come to a stop at the small curl of stone and land that pushed out into the river, creating a hook of undergrowth, trees and stones that was partly screened from the winds that often hawked down the river. It was well known as a fishing spot and a place to swim in the river.
The boys were stopped looking at a series of police tape strips strung about the area, blocking off the fishing spot. The ground looked oddly disturbed, piles of leaves and pine straw pushed about as if there had been a struggle. Andy recognized the marks immediately, although it seemed apparent that the other boys weren't aware of what they were actually seeing.
"What happened here?" Sammy said, about to duck under the tape and get a closer look. Tom's arm shot out and latched onto the smaller boy's shoulder, restraining him from forward movement.
"This is what I was talking about before, Sam," Andy said, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets. "This is where the strongest of us fell."
"Fell?" Josh said, looking around the site. He lifted off the ground and floated over the tape, keeping his legs bunched to limit his profile, keeping himself well under the edge of the foliage. Looking down over the fishing spot, he could see that there had been some kind of scuffle, lots of boots on the ground, lots of motion towards a central area that was less disturbed.
"Taken. There were two boys. They had camped out at the Watch, just last weekend. They were attacked. One of them was the target, the other was his… lover."
"Lover?" Sammy asked. Tom leaned over and whispered in Sammy's ear, a look of dawning realization coming over the younger boy's face. And then a mild blush with a sheepish grin replaced the look of understanding.
Josh floated back over the zig-zags of police tape and landed near Andy, his eyes darkening at the realization that two guys who had found what Josh himself would give his right arm for a chance at, that they had been ambushed, attacked and who knows what else had Joshua angry. "Who?"
"Which who do you mean?" Andy returned.
"Er, both," Josh answered. "Who did it and who was it done to?"
"I kinda want to know, too," Tom asserted.
"Let's turn up here," Andy said, motioning to a trail that led uphill through the woods. It turned back along the river for a short bit, but then began a more upwards trend.
After a short distance, with Sammy occasionally looking back towards the taped off area, Andy began talking again.
"I don't say this to show off, or to out someone. All of us have sexual feelings for other boys. And yes, I prefer to think of myself as a boy. That being said, I can tell you who was attacked. The actual nature of the attackers, I don't know for certain, although based on their coordination and equipment, I wouldn't put it past being some covert arm of the government."
"Our government?!" Josh blurted.
"Few others could operate with such impunity on our soil," Andy said, sadly. "As for the other part of the answer, I think many of you might know the target. Both boys are well known."
"Well?" Tom asked.
"They are Cameron Durman and Max Perault. And the target was Max."
"I know Cam," Tom nodded. "Never knew he liked guys, too. Quiet guy, good with building electrical stuff."
"Max is in two of my classes," Sammy supplied. "Well, one class and gym, though he's in Coach Johansen's class and I'm in with Coach Brewer. And I think we played soccer against each other in summer league as kids. How is he the strongest? He's, like, my age."
"Because, he is telekinetic." Andy noticed the look on Joshua's face and interpreted it as confusion. "He can manipulate physical objects with the power of his thoughts alone."
"I know what telekinetic means," Josh said, feeling a little miffed that Andy was talking down to him. "I've read comic books. I've seen X-Men movies."
"Yeah, Wolverine!" Sammy said, crouching, arms held by his sides before leaping forward, arms shooting out like he had long claws of metal poking out between his knuckles. "So, Max is like Jean Grey?"
"Without the Phoenix problem," Andy agreed. "I hope."
"How does that make him the strongest?" Josh asked.
"The rest of us have abilities that are focused on our own bodies. Mostly we have regeneration, enhanced senses, body modifications, and greatly accelerated physical attributes. Max can affect other things, outside of his body, at the speed of thought, with significantly greater strength than all of us put together."
"So, what you're saying is…" Tom began.
"Yes. He can be just near something, perform whatever manipulations as he wishes, even hurt someone very significantly, and because it happens without him actually touching or needing to appear to attack someone…"
"Unless you knew he could do any of that," Joshua finished the thought, "he would never be suspected."
"I can see why someone might fear that ability. He'd be the ultimate terrorist or assassin," Tom said, thinking out loud. "He'd be even more effective if he could read minds and stuff."
"I have no information about that, but it wouldn't be beyond the pale."
"Why do I feel dumb around you?" Sammy asked.
"I just have a lot more experience, tiger-boy. You're not dumb, by any stretch."
Josh stopped walking, his thoughts coursing about all the information Andy had given. He had questions of his own. Questions he felt that were important.
"Wait a half." The others stopped walking, turning to face Josh. "How do we know that Max was the target? Are we sure the guys that attacked Max and Cam did so because of Max or because they were gay and camping out? I mean, let's be honest here. The only reason two guys who are gay and with each other would camp outside in October is because they wanted to do stuff together they couldn't do in either of their homes. What if the guys that attacked them were just, like, gay bashers or something?"
"I know that wasn't the case," Andy said with quiet shame.
"How do you know that?"
"Because," Andy said, turning to walk towards the head of the line, past Sammy and Tom, "because I watched it happen."
The other boys stopped following, again clumped together.
"You watched?" Sammy asked, a little shocked.
"I was across the river. It happened so fast, all I could do was watch. By the time the attack was over, I could only follow as far as the transport vehicle they used to carry Cam and Max off. As good as I am, I can't compete with highway speeds."
"So you saw who attacked them?"
"I saw. I would recognize some of them if I saw them again. But I knew none of them. One of them, a boy about our age, Josh, seemed to focus on Max and something happened between them that I could not discern."
"How could you see them from across the river?" Sammy asked.
"I was in the Founder's Elm, near the top." The boys all knew what Andy meant when talking about that tree. Founder's Elm was easily over 500 years old and taller than most trees in the county. It was situated near the Founder's Landing Park on the other side of the river, near the original town boundary and the oldest cemetery in the region. Founder's Elm would have a commanding view of much of the lower lying areas around downtown Canterbury.
"But, the river's like 500 feet across there. You'd have to be able to read newsprint across a gym floor to see that kinda stuff."
"Like I said," Andy replied, sighing, "we have augmented senses. With a little experimentation and training, you'll be able to see and hear very, very far away."
"Really?" Josh said, with awe. He thought back to the moment of his flight earlier, with the log truck. He could see better and farther than before. His senses did seem somehow magnified.
"Yes, smells also, Sammy."
"So, you didn't just watch and abandon Max and Cam when they were attacked?" Tom asked, getting back to another point.
"I'm not sure what I could have done had I been closer," Andy said, looking the taller boy in the eyes. "The simple fact of the matter is that I'm just one person and there were over a dozen of them, heavily armed and unafraid of using force against two unarmed kids." Andy adjusted his glasses, a quiver in his shoulders and lips betraying his own sense of helplessness. "I felt it was important to know what went on so I could plan for the future. I wish there was something I could have done."
Tom, seeming to understand, nodded. Andy turned and started walking up hill again, the others falling into step behind.
"There's one thing still hanging," Josh said from the rear of the column. "You said there were three things connecting us. I get the first two. What's the third?"
"That one is a little less easy to accept. One of the things that Gramps was looking into while a spy in the war, was the loss of artifacts and art in German controlled areas. The Nazi's had a habit of stealing and stockpiling valuable things. And apparently, Hitler had a fascination with objects of occult association."
"What?" Sammy asked.
"Ever see Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Tom asked Sam.
"Oh, that movie where the bad guys' faces melted off?"
"Something like that, yeah," Tom replied.
"Occult objects are things related to religion or magic or mysticism. Like magic wands or stuff like that."
"Ohhh, like Harry Potter stuff?"
"Close enough," Tom said, ruffling Sammy's hair. He felt strangely close to this youngster, despite them nearly coming to blows about an hour before. There was an energy to the kid that he felt attracted to in a big brother sort of way. Protective, almost.
"Well, one of the objects that Gramps was looking for was a tablet. A giant stone tablet that bore hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions on it, as well as an eight-foot tall statue of the Egyptian god Horus. The inscription is an invocation to the god, to give the person reciting the invocation the powers of the gods. It is a spell, of sorts, for rebirth, renewal and magical abilities."
"So how does that affect us?" Tom asked.
"I thought magic was just illusions, deceptions," Josh said. "It's not a real thing, is it?"
"I cannot be certain, but here we are. I choose to keep an open mind. The connection between us is the tablet. It sits in the Museum of Fine Arts' Egyptian section. I believe that on a school trip, possibly on a family visit, each of your parents touched the tablet, possibly right over the inscription, possibly reading the translation beside the tablet. It is possible that this, combined with genetic alteration treatments from the disease may have unlocked whatever is responsible for our preternatural capabilities."
The boys stopped again, causing Andy to have to stop and turn back towards them. "I know how it sounds. But I have applied Occam's Razor to it."
"You shaved it?" Sammy asked.
"I think I know this one," Joshua said. "My brother taught it too me a long time ago. It's about problem solving. Scooby-Doo kinda stuff. Occam's Razor is the idea that if you remove all possibilities, probabilities and such, paring your choices down to just a few likely reasons for something, whichever answer is simplest is likely correct."
"So, what he's saying is," Sammy began, ticking things off on his fingers, "because our parents were hurt and changed by this whacky Nazi guy, and because our parents touched some old Egyptian rock with words cut into it, that's how we got our powers?"
"I think you nailed it, little guy," Tom said.
"That's soooo wicked!"
Andy dropped back a bit, walking closer to Josh as the other two started talking. Andy leaned over and whispered, "You do know you sort of combined Occam's Razor with Aritstotle's principle and Marcus Aurelius' philosophy, right?"
"I know I didn't have it perfect. I figured you'd correct me sooner or later."
"I tend to do that a lot. I'm sorry if it offends you."
"Naw," Josh replied, grinning slightly. "It's good someone's keeping us on our mental toes. I get the feeling we're gonna be needing that big brain of yours a lot, real soon."
"I wish I could say that isn't so, my friend."
"Your grandfather, he sounds like he was one heck of a man."
"One of a kind. A kind we need more of these days," Andy said, sighing. "We'd better catch up, or the fur brigade will beat us to the top."
"Lead on," Josh replied, watching as Andy took steps ahead. Not for the first time, Josh found himself looking at Andy's rear and having a twinge in his jeans. He couldn't quite shake the image of Andy as a girl, but Andy as a boy left Joshua feeling… anxious.
At the head of the line once again, Andy led the boys up hill, following an old path that snaked up through the forest, getting into deeper, thicker bushes in the process of dropping their leaves. The way got steeper, but they plugged on.
Kyle sat back, his hands feeling rough and tired from stacking the cut logs. The trailer was only a quarter full, but the coolness of the early fall morning air made every little bump against his skin seem to resonate with minor pain. Organizing the cut wood definitely made for a heavier load, but meant fewer trips once they got it home.
He had grown to hate home. It had been tight even back when Kyle's father had been working at the plant. Then Mom got sick, and died. Then Dad had gotten laid off. And all the belt tightening that came along with that. And then the loss of anything not related to hockey.
Kyle loved the sport, but hated what his father had turned it into for him. Truth be told, he hated what his father's love of the sport combined with Kyle's phenomenal talent for it had turned everything to. Had turned Kyle himself into.
He looked to the empty sled and considered taking a break. He looked in the direction he knew his father would be, down the hill. It had been several minutes since he'd last heard his father's chainsaw. It shouldn't have taken so long to refill the gas tank. There were acres that still needed to be clear cut.
A shadow fell across Kyle's back. He turned, not expecting anyone to be out this deep into the woods. He had to shield his eyes against the sun behind the person casting the shadow over him.
"You Kyle Dakoon?" a voice said from the shadow's owner.
"Yeah. Who're you? My Dad's just down the hill there," Kyle said, adding the last as an afterthought. The first time he'd thought of his old man in a protective capacity in a long, long time.
"Take him," the shadowy person said. Three darts suddenly sprouted from Kyle's chest. He looked up at the shadowy figure, and the several other ones that moved from behind him, barely able to focus his eyes.
Kyle shook his head, trying to regain some semblance of balance. The world seemed to bend and twist around him. He fell forward, holding onto the side of the trailer, his hands slipping. "Dad?" Kyle called out, his voice sounding very out of whack. His tongue just seemed to slur the word into a more open sounding, "duh?"
As he felt the world go dark, colder, twisting, Kyle tried to surge closer to the trailer. Instead, his body pitched away from it, folding, laying out on his side. He tried to focus his eyes but the spots in his vision overwhelmed him, dragging him down into a frightening embrace of nightmares.
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